INDIANAPOLIS — Any number of educators—principals, personnel directors, superintendents—can be called upon to evaluate teachers.
But one school district in Indiana, Anderson, has decided that another group has perhaps the best expertise to judge quality teaching: other teachers.
This type of peer review is catching on nationally but is rare in Indiana.
That might soon change.
The Hechinger Report and Indianapolis Star have teamed up to produce a series on new teacher effectiveness measures in Indiana.
The Indiana Department of Education’s push to overhaul teacher performance reviews has specifically made room for districts that want to use teachers as evaluators.
But it wasn’t without a fight. The “Toledo” peer review model, used in Anderson, was invented by a teachers union, inviting skepticism from those who battle labor on political fronts, especially Republican lawmakers.
Mindy Schlegel, who heads the Indiana Department of Education’s office of educator effectiveness and leadership, said she had to help persuade lawmakers to include a provision in last year’s teacher evaluation law to permit Anderson’s program.
“The whole peer thing is really interesting,” she said. “It was important to me to keep it in the legislation.”
The state is piloting another teacher evaluation model this year that includes peer review. The nationally recognized TAP program, which shares some strategies with the Toledo model, is officially endorsed by the state as an option for school districts to try.
TAP, or the System for Teacher and Student Advancement, was launched by philanthropist Lowell Milken in 1999 and is used by school districts across the country.
Under TAP, “master” and “mentor” teachers are responsible for providing weekly training to their peers and conducting four to six classroom observations, with the help of the schools’ administrator, to rate teachers.
Master and mentor teachers receive salary bumps, while all teachers are eligible for bonuses based on student performance.
In Indiana’s South Grove Intermediate School, which is piloting TAP, Dee Dee Horen is the “master teacher,” selected by her peers to be part judge and part support system.
For the first few months of the school year, Horen led weekly “cluster meetings,” going over the standards that teachers would be evaluated on, such as academic feedback or motivation. Now, she shares ways to implement new teaching strategies. Evaluators stop by each classroom for 10 to 15 minutes each week to follow up from the meetings.
The weekly meetings, combined with immediate feedback, Horen said, make the connection between evaluation and training explicit.
The follow-ups conducted by Horen, Principal Tonya Reid and mentor teachers don’t affect a teacher’s final rating. That is determined by four observations done over the course of the school year, two of which are unannounced.
“Being observed four times a year,” Reid said, “it forces a teacher to be a little bit more on their game.”
Involving teachers in the evaluation process, in many cases, also means involving the teachers union. Sometimes to their surprise, administrators find a benefit in that.
Last December, Anderson Assistant Superintendent Beth Clark had to perform one of the hardest duties of her job—tell two teachers that their contracts weren’t going to be renewed.
But now when she undertakes this unpleasant task, there’s someone at her side.
“The president of the [local chapter of the] American Federation of Teachers and I do it together now,” she said. “In the past, I’d tell them and expect a fight.”
Anderson is in its third year using the Toledo model, and Clark, an ex-principal, is a true believer.
“We’re having discussions we never had before,” she said.
The Toledo model, formally called Peer Assistance and Review, gains converts, said its creator, Dal Lawrence, because it involves more people and attacks the main problems with evaluation: ignoring bad teaching practices and allowing poor teachers to be reshuffled.
“When I always ask teachers, ‘Do you want to be part of a profession that is respected for its practice?’ every hand in the room goes up,” Lawrence said. “That’s our job. We have the credentials. They have to own it and share that ownership with management.”
In Anderson, the master teacher role is called “consulting teacher.” The district has two of them—11-year teacher Jennifer Hudson Roberts and 37-year teacher Mary Lou Sweeney. Selected teachers rotate in for three years and earn a $5,600 stipend, a significant sum for a district where the average teacher pay is $45,000.
The main duty of consulting teachers is observation and coaching for both rookie and veteran teachers who are new to the district. There are five formal, 20-minute observations with reports and feedback meetings in the first semester.
Consulting teachers ultimately make a recommendation about whether the teachers they mentor should be retained to a nine-member panel—four administrators and five teachers, who can accept or disagree.
It takes six votes to recommend to the school board not to renew a teacher’s contract, and Clark said the conversations go in-depth.
“Sometimes we really grill the consulting teacher,” she said. “We ask questions like, ‘Are you sure you’ve done all you can? Have you tried this?’ ”
First-year teachers are called “interns,” and Anderson’s numbers show the process, indeed, weeds people out. In two years, two interns were not renewed, and one was terminated early out of 35 total new teachers.
“Over 20 years, that could be 40 potentially poor teachers you don’t have to worry about,” Clark said.
Veteran teachers aren’t immune, either. They can be referred by their principals or fellow teachers for evaluation. A higher percentage of veterans tend to leave—five of 15 referred over the past two years resigned or retired rather than go through the process. The others improved their teaching enough to satisfy the panel and continue teaching. Anderson has 420 teachers.
“More educators have either voluntarily left or been recommended for nonrenewal in this process than left under the old evaluation in my entire 37 years,” said Rick Muir, president of the Indiana Federation of Teachers.
Clark knows why. She remembers how tough it was to do good evaluations when she was a principal.
“In the old structure, when you did an observation and sat down with the teacher, you could identify things the teacher needed to work on, but you didn’t have the time or resources to follow that teacher through for improvement,” she said. “That was the most frustrating thing. You really can’t mentor that person.”
Hudson Roberts said consulting teachers are better at this task because their entire jobs are focused on teacher training and performance review.
“We spend so much time in the classrooms of our teachers,” she said. “We really know them and their classes and what is going on in there.”
In the past, the worst cases were frustrating on the union side, too, Muir said. Union leaders have a legal responsibility to defend their members in discipline cases, so to remove a teacher, principals had to carefully document all shortcomings.
Muir remembers a particularly vexing case: a teacher he knew wasn’t cutting it.
“I went to that principal and said, ‘Please follow the process. Don’t make a mistake that will give this person an out.’ ”
If the ideas behind the TAP and PAR programs are imported to other districts, Muir said, it will make teaching better across Indiana.
“But if you don’t measure up after we’ve given you everything we should have to help you be successful, we don’t want to keep you in the school district.”
A version of this story appeared in The Indianapolis Star on March 11, 2012.